New & Traditional Countertop Choices: Part 2 Laminates, Composites, Solid Surfaces & Concrete
Go Back to Part 1
High-Pressure Decorative Laminate (HPDL) such as Formica and Wilsonart was the first engineered countertop material and is still the favorite of American homeowners. It outsells all other countertop materials combined and is installed in 70% of American kitchens.
Decorative laminate is made of paper layers and thermosetting phenolic resins. As many as 18 layers make up the final product. The bottom layers are Kraft paper, the same brown paper used in grocery bags, soaked in a phenolic resin. These give the material its rigidity.
The top or "wear layer" is usually some form of melamine, another thermosetting resin. It is transparent to reveal the pattern printed on the second or "decorative" layer, also impregnated with melamine. Thermofused under great pressure and at high temperature, the resins bond the layers forming one solid sheet.
Advanced printing methods allow laminate, which is a flat surface, to give the illusion of depth and dimension. This visual sleight-of-hand is often pretty convincing. Some lines of laminate can offer higher wear resistance than standard. Nevamar, for example, offers its award-winning "Armored Protection Surface" on all of its products — and a test kit you can buy for a nominal cost to see just how tough this surface is.
Pros & Cons
Pros: The most popular countertop material. Relatively low cost, easy "soap and water" maintenance. Huge range of colors and patterns. Formerly it was nearly impossible to undermount or flush-mount a sink. The only sinks that could be used were drop-in or surface mounted sinks. But, things have changed. Today integrated sinks are not only possible but reasonably priced.
Cons: Knives and hot pans can damage the surface which cannot be easily repaired. The wear layer on some inexpensive materials is thin and can wear through at heavily used section of the countertop. Relatively short 15-20 year lifespan.
Durability: Medium. A laminate countertop will last 20 years or longer with reasonable care and keep its like-new appearance for most of that period. It is immune to most household chemicals and impact damage. It can be chipped and cracked but it takes some determination. It can be damaged by high heat, so it must be protected from hot pans. If it is damaged, it can be repaired, but the repair is usually obvious.
Maintenance: Very Low. Requires no sealing or other periodic maintenance. Cleans with soap and water.
Cost: Very Low. The lowest installed cost of all countertop materials.
Green: Medium. In fabrication, Laminates use a mix of petrochemical resins as a binder and consume a lot of energy. At the end of its useful life, the material does not degrade rapidly and tends to linger in landfills for decades. It has no residual value and is not recyclable.
Where to Buy
Reasonably durable and very affordable, virtually stain proof and reasonably heat resistant, laminate comes in so many colors and styles from so many manufacturers that the hardest part of selecting a laminate material may be the seemingly infinite number of choices.
If the wear surface is penetrated or damaged by cutting or burning, the laminate is usually ruined. Most attempts to repair laminate are unsuccessful — the repair looks like a repair. By comparison, a repair to a solid surface countertop and many stone products is almost impossible to detect.
Laminates can reasonably be expected to last 10-15 years with ordinary care — not nearly as long as solid surfaces, stone or composites. But offsetting their relative lack of longevity is the price. Laminate is among the least expensive countertop materials — so cheap, in fact, that regular replacement is actually affordable to refresh an aging kitchen or bathroom. We rank laminates as the best value in countertop materials for the budget minded. (See Kitchen Remodeling on the Cheap: Proven Ideas for Creating Your Dream Kitchen on a Budget.
Solid surface is a molded polymer surface made by heating a mix of acrylic, epoxide or polyester resin with pigments and a form of aluminum called alumina hydrate. The material can mimic the appearance of wood, stone, quartz, granite or marble. The most recognizable brand in this group is the original: DuPont's Corian, invented in the 1960s. the manufacturing process uses considerably less energy than just about any other manufactured countertop material and emits only a small amount of volatile organic compounds. In use in the home, it is virtually inert, having minimal impact on the environment.
Pros & Cons
Pros: Easy to maintain. No sealing or on-going maintenance required. Sinks can be under-mounted or integrated. The material can be thermoformed into a variety of shapes. Relatively inexpensive but not as budget-friendly as laminates.
Cons: Relatively soft. Can stain, cut, and scratch. Knives should be kept away. Will tolerate heat to 212° but Will be damaged by very hot pans. Some homeowners don't like its matte “plasticky” finish.
Durability: High - . Solid surface materials will last for decades. They are immune to stains and most impact damage but can be melted by high heat. The material scratches easily but minor scratches can be buffed out using a Scotch-Brite™ pad and a little elbow grease. Deep scratches may require professional restoration.
Maintenance: Very Low. Requires no sealing or other periodic maintenance. Cleans with soap and water.
Cost: Low. The second lowest installed cost of all countertop materials. Only laminates are less expensive.
Green: Medium. Relatively low impact on the environment in manufacturing and in use in the home. Recyclable.
Where to Buy
Easy to maintain, solid surfacing comes in a wide variety of colors and patterns from a growing number of domestic and foreign manufacturers, including well-known brands such as Wilsonart, Formica, and Avonite to name just a few of the most widely available. New players such as LG and Samsung (yes, the electronics manufacturers) have added to the variety.
Chip, stain, fade, and bacteria-resistant, solid surfacing is long-lasting and can usually be repaired if it becomes damaged. Unlike repairs to laminates, the patches are virtually invisible. Its finish as received from the factory is uniformly matte. It can be finished to a semi-gloss shine using a multi-step polishing process before it is installed but the finish is delicate and shows scratches readily.
Most brands offer matching undermount sinks that seamlessly attach to the countertop material. Undermount sinks offer a number of advantages to traditional sinks that sit on the countertop; perhaps the most helpful is that you can sweep debris from the countertop into the sink without having to maneuver it over the sink's lip. Sinks can also be integrated, which means the sink is made of the same material as the countertop and seamlessly bonded to the countertop so that the two essentially form one solid piece.
The major disadvantage to solid surfacing is its susceptibility to damage by heat. It is probably not a good idea to put hot pans on any countertop material (the exception being glazed ceramic tile) but solid surfacing is particularly vulnerable to heat damage, and this is one kind of damage that is difficult to repair, requiring, in most cases, complete replacement of the countertop.
Usually (but not always) less expensive than most natural stones but more expensive than laminates, solid surfacing is not a budget countertop solution. Still, it is an excellent, lifetime material. Solid surfacing countertops we installed 15 years ago still look good. So, if your new kitchen is the last kitchen you will ever have, solid surfacing may be the choice for you.
Engineered Composite Countertops
When we first wrote this article a dozen years ago, there was essentially one filler material used in engineered composites: quartz. In fact, quartz was so predominant that the original title of this section was then "Quartz and Engineered Stone". In the intervening years, things have changed dramatically. Composite filler materials now include metal, glass, paper, and bamboo as well as stone, and no doubt before this revision is actually uploaded, someone will come up with yet another filler material.
Pros & Cons
Pros: Sinks can be undermounted. Very hard, very scratch resistant, difficult to stain. No sealing or on-going maintenance required. Soap and water cleanup.
Cons: Very pricey, often much more costly than natural stone. Some homeowners find it a little too uniform in appearance. The environmental friendliness of the material is heavily promoted but often exaggerated.
Durability: Very High - . Engineered composite materials are very durable. They resist scratches, most impact damage, and staining but the polymers in the material can be damaged by high heat.
Maintenance: Very Low. Requires no sealing or other periodic maintenance. Cleans with soap and water.
Cost: Very High. One of the most expensive countertop materials.
Green: Low. Composite materials are a core of some sort of filler material held together by a petrochemical resin, usually some form of phenol. The filler materials are sometimes recycled from post-consumer waste but the resin binder is usually derived from petroleum or natural gas and is not sustainable. The manufacture of composites consumes a lot of energy and releases volatile organic compounds (VOC) into the atmosphere. Composite material does not degrade and cannot be recycled.
Where to Buy
The object of using all these new materials is to get greener. Most are either environmentally sustainable or contain a high percentage of post-consumer waste, or both, giving them at least the patina of being a "green" material.
Since the manufacturing process uses a lot of energy and requires environmentally questionable chemicals such as phenol (derived from petroleum), methane and formaldehyde, we rather doubt the "greenness" of any petro-resin-bonded composite material.
This is an example of the questionable practice of promoting products as "green" merely because they contain some environmentally friendly components or use some eco-friendly processes while ignoring the totality of the product which may be about as eco-friendly overall as acid rain. It's called "greenwashing" and we don't think phenolic composites are or can ever be truly green, just greenwashed. (See sidebar: Can Engineered Composites Ever Be Truly "Green"? ).
Since the manufacturing process uses a lot of energy and requires environmentally questionable chemicals such as phenol (derived from petroleum or natural gas), methane and formaldehyde, we rather doubt the "greenness" of any petro-resin-bonded composite material.
This is an example of the questionable practice of promoting a product as "green" merely because it contains some environmentally friendly components or uses some eco-friendly processes while ignoring the totality of the product which, overall, may be about as eco-friendly as acid rain. It's called "greenwashing" and we don't think phenolic composites are or can ever be truly green, just greenwashed (See sidebar, below).
A composite countertop is a thermosetting plastic, usually a phenolic resin derived from petroleum, with a filler added. Engineered composites are not new. The very first thermosetting plastic, Bakelite, developed around 1909 by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland, was a phenolic resin made with wood dust. Bakelite was developed for use as an electrical insulator but also found a home as the plastic shell for many very early radios and as the material used to make those truly ugly institutional food trays.
Some manufacturers such as Papercraft have traded in petro-based resins for binders made of natural oils, such as corn oil. We certainly applaud these efforts. Now, all we need is a few years of seasoning to see how well non-petro-binders actually hold up under normal use. At the moment it is basically an experimental material.
The filler makes up the bulk of the material gives the material much of its character. Common filler materials used today include stone dust, glass shards, cellulose fibers, and metal shavings. When combined with a phenolic resin and baked under tremendous pressure the result is a dense, very tough, durable surface that looks much more like natural stone than do solid surfaces but is harder and more flexible than real stone, and free of the fissures, chips, and pits that plague natural stone. And, unlike natural stone, composites never need sealing. They are virtually maintenance free.
Often more expensive than natural stone, engineered composite products are not for those on a budget. The good news, though, is that prices seem to be continuously coming down as the market becomes more competitive.
The flagship engineered composite countertop, owning over 60% of the market, is Silestone owned by the Spanish company, Cosentino. Other quartz composite manufacturers include Caesarstone, an Israeli company, and Zodiaq by Dupont.
Quartz is the fourth hardest natural mineral, after diamonds, topaz, and sapphire. It usually comprises about 95% of the engineered material. The binding material makes the material more flexible than natural stone and less likely to chip, crack or break. But, on the downside, the binder, unlike natural stone, can be damaged by high heat, so never put a hot pan on any engineered composite.
A relative newcomer to the countertop world, paper composites are often heralded as an environmentally friendly countertop product. We have some doubts about this (See sidebar).
Putting environmental issues aside, however, the product is a very good countertop material. The paper is either pulp from managed forests or post-consumer waste — one manufacturer uses a high percentage of decommissioned paper money. It is dense and heavy, weighing about as much as natural granite. It can scratch but since the color goes all the way through the material, it takes a very serious marring to show any damage. Variations in the base paper often result in slight color variations and a "mottled" appearance, especially in lighter colors. There are no patterns available, all of the products have solid coloring. Seams will show, so careful design is needed to minimize or disguise seams.
The material is tough enough to use in chemical laboratories (its original application) and strong enough to be used as skating rink floors but it will wear and can stain. Homeowners who prefer these countertops admire products like soapstone and concrete that show a patina of age. Over time and with use, the countertop will develop a seasoned appearance. It will exhibit a softer, deeper tone, with more luster in the areas of heavier use.
Glass is also a relatively new filler material in composite countertops. The composite is between 75% and 85% post-consumer glass, depending on the manufacturer, with the rest being a colored resin binder. Thousands of pieces of polished glass, which began life as beer bottles, windshields, traffic lights, and stemware are chopped up and become the predominant material in this composite.
Can Engineered Composites Ever Be Truly "Green"?
All engineered composites are made much the same way: a filler material is mixed with a thermosetting resin and compressed under high heat and tremendous pressure. The most commonly used resin is a phenolic resin, a combination of phenol and formaldehyde with just a soupcon of methane. None of these is particularly enviro-friendly. Phenol has been identified by Greenpeace as a prime suspect in the growing incidence of reproductive disorders in humans, including lowered sperm counts in males, and has begun appearing in breast milk. Formaldehyde is a well-known carcinogen. Finished products can "out-gas" formaldehyde for some time after manufacture, although modern manufacturing techniques now minimize out-gassing with low VOC formulations.
The major difference between Richlite — branded a "green" material — and Silestone (not green) is the filler material. The filler in Richlite is paper pulp fiber from "certified managed forests". Silestone uses quartz. Rock is not usually thought of as a "green" material because it is not renewable.
Absolutely true. Once quartz is removed from the ground, there is no process that we know of that will refill the resulting hole with new quartz. But apply a little common sense here. Is our use of quartz really an environmental problem?
It is certainly a sustainable material. Our third rock from the sun is composed mostly of, well, rock. So far all of the rock quarrying activity throughout all of human history does not equal the amount of stone in one smallish mountain. We have lots and lots of rock — a whole planet full of rock. Rock is the most common material we have — more plentiful than dirt. At present rates of use, we are unlikely to run out of rock. The sun will explode first, and vaporize the planet.
So how "green" is this stuff if the only green part is just one of its materials while the rest of its components and the manufacturing process itself is very, very ungreen?
We absolutely applaud the use of post-consumer waste in any product and strongly support managed foresty. We think composites are a durable, beautiful material well suited for countertops in the finest kitchens. But adding some sustainable paper pulp or recycled glass does not make the material green. "Greener" maybe, at best but decidedly not "green".
Besides eco-friendly fillers, true "green" is going to required friendlier binders and a less energy intensive process. Some manufacturers are already pioneering greener resins. Paperstone, for example, uses a natural resin binder made from, of all things, cashew nuts. Kliptech also uses a non-phenolic water-based resin in its EcoTop material and Cosentino a corn-oil-based binder in its composite. Hats off to these guys. But, these new formulations have little history, so we don't know how long they will last or how durable they are in actual use. We know that Paperstone's organic binder yields a much softer material than standard petroleum-based binders.
But, no one has tackled the energy issue, and it may not be solvable until a completely new binder requiring much less heat and pressure is developed. None are on the horizon that we know of.
Engineered composites are not "green", they are, in fact, a very long way from green. They have been "greenwashed" — a process of making a product seem more environmentally friendly by making some of the processes or materials more eco-friendly. If a composite works for your kitchen and lifestyle, fine, buy it. But don't buy it because it is greener than the alternative. It's really not.
A special binder is required since most ordinary resins will not bond well with glass. But, the result is a tough, durable material with a truly unique texture of light reflecting off of glass particles. Although the surface is hard, it can still be scratched and high heat will damage the resin binder. Use a cutting board and put hot pans on a trivet.
Even shredded aluminum is finding its way into composite countertops. The manufacturer, Alkemi, uses shavings of scrap aluminum that are embedded in a resin that comes in dozens of colors. The metal reflects light in interesting ways, and the resin provides a contemporary appearance. With both a matte and a polished side on each slab, the materials offer the homeowner a choice of visual effects.
The surface is durable and resists heat but as with most resin-bound composite products can be scratched by the truly determined and will be damaged by high heat.
Bamboo & Wood Composites:
Bamboo is an especially green material because it is plentiful, grows rapidly, and is easily renewed. It has become almost a first choice for eco-friendly flooring and decking, and is now used by one manufacturer as a filler for composite countertops mixed with wood fiber from recycled lumber. We doubt that cellulose fibers from bamboo or wood are much different chemically from those extracted from paper, so it may be the that all of these fillers belong in one category — cellulose filler.
With a new, more environmentally friendlier water-based resin binder, the company is reportedly able to make lighter, fade resistant, colors.
Repair is a matter of sanding out any scratches with fine sandpaper or a Scotch-Brite scouring pad. Resistant to heat, the product will not stand very hot pans and will be damaged by high heat.
Due to its use of bamboo filler, the product is promoted by the manufacturer as a "green" material. We doubt that. See the sidebar at right.
Proving that just about any material can become a filler for a composite countertop, one manufacturer, Cosentino, uses filler material composed of 75% or so post-consumer and industrial waste: salvaged mirrors, window and bottle glass, porcelain and industrial furnace residuals. The remainder is stone scrap bonded with 22% corn oil resin. So, in describing these products as composed mostly of trash, we are not being disrespectful, it just happens to be true.
The salvaged fillers and corn oil rather than petroleum resins make this about the greenest of the "greenish" countertops, and perhaps as eco-friendly as can be achieved with high pressure and heat processes that require an enormous amount of energy.
Pros & Cons
Pros: Can be formed into just about any shape. Has a unique feel. Can be polished to a high shine or left dull. An increasing number of colors and finishes.
Cons: Pricey, very easily stained, high maintenance. Can have a definite "industrial" look about it. Can chip and crack, although these defects can be invisibly repaired in many instances.
Durability: Very High. The specially formulated concrete used for countertops is very durable. It can chip at the edges and may show hairline cracks as it ages. The concrete itself cannot be damaged by a hot pan but the sealer will darken and be very obvious. It is not impossible but is very difficult to remove the damaged sealer.
Maintenance: Very High. Requires periodic sealing. Failure to seal regularly may permit stains to reach the concrete. Once stained, concrete is nearly impossible to clean effectively. If kept sealed, cleans with soap and water.
Cost: Very High. Although the cost is coming down, the material is still labor intensive and costly.
Green: Medium. There is an environmental cost to manufacturing the cement that is the bonding agent in concrete, and it is not trivial, but the limestone the cement is madefrom is plentiful, unlike oil which is an increasingly finite material. Other materials in the mix are sand and fine gravel, bothe plentiful, and fly ash, a waste product from steel-making. Composites generally use recycled materials such as glass shards, metal waste or post-consumer paper as a filler. The curing process throws off no emissions.
Where to Buy
The composite is too new to have been extensively tested in the marketplace but its manufacturer claims that it performs as well as the less eco-friendly composites. But its warranty is skimpy — only 5-years — so it does not seem to have all that much actual confidence in the product.
Concrete & Concrete Composite Countertops
Concrete is hardly a new material. It has been around for centuries. But, the concrete used in countertops bears only the slightest resemblance to the stuff in your driveway or sidewalk. What has been done to concrete has to be seen to be believed.
Concrete countertops are the very latest thing among the California and New York glitterati. In fact, a number of well-known kitchen designers are predicting that concrete may one day eclipse granite as the up-scale countertop materials of choice. It may seem odd to use a pedestrian material like concrete in a kitchen or bathroom — unless the bathroom is attached to a gym or the county jail — but in fact, concrete countertops are warm and attractive with an almost unlimited choice of finishes and colors.
Concrete countertops may be formed in a studio, then installed much like natural stone slabs. This process, however, leaves joints that must be filled. Poured-in-place concrete countertops are one seamless unit. The disadvantage of this method is that it is a huge, gigantic, incredible mess.
The forms for the concrete are assembled on top of already installed cabinets that have to be protected. Often the floor is also finished, another protection problem. Once the forms are in place, then the concrete is usually carried in by the bucket-full.many buckets-full in fact. Then it must be carefully tinted, finished and allowed to cure for several days while being kept damp so it does not crack. Obviously, all this is quite the chore — and one best left to the pros.
There are additional drawbacks. Concrete countertops are expensive — more costly than natural stone in most places. They are so heavy that the cabinets (and sometimes the floors) under them may have to specially reinforced. Concrete typically develops hairline cracks due to the natural shrinkage of curing concrete. Some people like the look of age that the cracks suggest. Others hate the idea. Concrete, like natural stone and unglazed tile, has to be sealed and resealed periodically. It is, in fact, fairly high maintenance if it is to be kept looking "new". Many owners, however, like the "character" of concrete that is showing a little use.
Within the last five or so years, regional and nationwide sources of concrete-based products have emerged. Unlike locally-made countertops, these are composite products — a combination of some very special concrete blends used as a binder, and a filler material. The concrete usually reinforced with glass fibers for incredible strength.
Most manufacturers of concrete composites seem reluctant to call the binder "concrete". It's a "natural mineral binder" or "fibrous cement" or "eco-ceramic cement". It's really just concrete but not "just concrete". It's concrete on steroids: More flexible and up to 10 times stronger than regular concrete. None that we have looked at recently showed any evidence of shrink- or stress-cracking, so those problems appear to have been conquered in this third generation of concrete formulations.
Filler materials may be stone, shells, paper, glass, metal or just about anything else, often mixed together in interesting ways. The goal of the filler is three-fold. It adds "green" content to the material by using post-consumer waste. It reduces the serious weight of concrete to something approaching merely back-breaking. And, it dramatically changes the look of the resulting material. IceStone, for example, looks like very expensive terrazzo because of its high glass content.
The greenness of the product, even with eco-friendly fillers, is suspect, however, since concrete itself is not especially green. It requires a lot of energy to manufacture. But, many of these products qualify for U.S. Green Building Council LEED credits, so at least someone thinks they are fairly eco-friendly.
Every manufacturer has its proprietary concrete recipe which is a closely guarded secret. Concrete does not naturally bind to glass — glass is too slick. So the concrete must be specially formulated if the finished product is not to be seriously weakened. Other fillers like paper and stone aggregate are less of a problem. The material is cast into large slabs and left to cure, then polished to expose the filler and refine the surface. A high polish, very unlike anything ever seen on ordinary concrete, is very possible with these products.
Just like solid surfacing or engineered composite countertops, composite concrete is typically shipped in large slabs to be fitted and installed by a local countertop installer with the special tools, training, and experience to cut shape and polish the material. Some manufacturers, however, will cast the countertop to size, eliminating local cutting, shaping, and polishing, and most manufacturers will also make sinks and other accessories to match. Some allow the buyer to select his own filler and finish.